Time to blow up the Blazer's roster
It seems like every season, the Portland Trail Blazers dust off the old footage from their magical 1977 NBA Championship season — the clips with Bill Walton after his jersey had been ripped off his body and thrown into the adoring crowd; "The Enforcer" Mo Lucas and Dave "Pinball" Twardzik, all wildly celebrating with teammates; the great coach Jack Ramsey and fans alike on the floor of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum after beating Julius "Dr. J" Erving and the mighty Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals.
Tasting such greatness with a team that played so well together just one time is brutal for a community. In some ways, it might be better to be a fan of the Memphis Grizzlies or Toronto Raptors — teams who have never won a title. Those cities and fans don't know how such an achievement is not only thrilling but can actually transfix, unite and move an entire community. They haven't rushed the floor, thrown a parade, or celebrated the spoils of being World Champions. They don't know what they are missing.
Fast forward to last season's NBA playoffs, and the Blazers still have one championship to their credit. Last year was as disappointing as
it was shocking for Blazer-maniacs.
In the off-season, the Blazers did little to improve. The organization seemed patient and pleased with the overall performance of the season. After all, they won nearly 50 games and had a young, core nucleus that was still maturing. They brought nearly everybody back, including Coach Terry Stotts. Even so, when Portland drafted none-and-done Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent, Jr., both score-oriented two guards, rather than seeking to address the glaring need for a bona fide 3-man, it was curious to say the least.
So this regular season is off to a very good start with an 8-3 record. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum lead a potent offensive attack, one that is sixth in the league in scoring at 117.3 points per game through 11 contests. They lead the entire NBA in free throw percentage shooting, and they are a team with a deep roster of players who are above average for the roles they play. They have an above average second unit. Individually, big Yusuf Nurkic looks more comfortable than ever with the players around him, while the emergence of 7-foot youngster Zach Collins (10.6 ppg, 58 percent FG) has been an important revelation. For those who placed too much weight on the Blazers uninspiring playoff performance last year, Portland
is outperforming projections
That all said, don't drink the red, white and black Kool Aid just yet. This is a team that is 27th in the league in assists, a reflection of the one-on-one, individual style of their two best players (Lillard and McCollum) rather than a team-oriented approach. It is still a team for which 7-foot fashionista Meyers Leonard can crack the rotation occasionally. The Blazers still feature the wrong Curry brother. Some of the gratuitous long-term contracts they offered marginal players remain embarrassing reminders of why their roster is stubbornly inflexible in some ways. Moreover, the Blazers flourish most in a free-wheeling, up-and-down game. This style can be found often in games during the regular season, but it is a style that during the NBA Playoffs becomes as elusive as hard evidence of Sasquatch.
The most paramount question is whether the Blazers' core 1-2 combination of Lillard and McCollum is potent enough to lead the team deep into the playoffs and receive a Larry O'Brien trophy someday. Both are fun, exciting, likeable personalities who can do amazing things on a basketball court. They are prolific scorers. They seem to be solid citizens, too. But as a tandem they are undersized, shoot-first, do-it-themselves, marginal-defending, ball-dominant guards, who historically have shot in the 44 percent range from the field. The answer, sadly, is that Lillard and McCollum are simply not a good enough duo to lead the Blazers back to the "promised land."
In my view, the Blazers are stuck. The annual disappointment of an early NBA playoff exit for Blazermaniacs is inevitable again this year, no matter how their regular season goes.
Portland faces a brutal organizational choice. Assuming the team wants to be great, they have to blow up this roster now.
If the Blazers think they can land a better No. 1 or No. 2, trading current assets on the roster, then ship either Dame or CJ with some combo of the team's more athletic. To get that done, get as much as you can for the package while Dame or CJ is in their prime. Unfortunately, to upgrade at either spot, you likely would need to include the young and promising Collins.
Another option is to unload both Dame and CJ, gather up assets in the mold of Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics and start anew.
Otherwise, this season will be the same song, different verse in the end for the Blazers. Good enough to delight at times and to tease the gullible, but not a serious contender to win it all.
But that's OK with me. I'm a Warriors fan anyway.
Jack Roche is a senior at Wilsonville High School.